WASHINGTON – U.S. and coalition forces intend to accelerate attacks on ground forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi in the "coming hours and days," the top U.S. on-scene commander said Tuesday, amid growing congressional doubt about the strategy and goals of an American-led international mission.
Two dozen more Tomahawk cruise missiles were launched from U.S. and British submarines late Monday and early Tuesday, a defense official said. That brought to 161 the number of Tomahawk strikes aimed at disabling Libyan command and control facilities, air defenses and other targets since the operation started Saturday.
U.S. Navy Adm. Samuel J. Locklear III said Libyan ground troops will be more vulnerable as the coalition grows in size and capability, but he declined to provide details of future targeting. He spoke to reporters at the Pentagon from aboard his command ship in the Mediterranean Sea. The ship is a headquarters for the U.S.-led aerial assault on Libya, which for now involves heavy U.S. firepower and a range of fighter, bomber and support aircraft.
Asked if international forces were stepping up strikes on Gadhafi ground troops, Locklear said that as the "capability of the coalition" grows, it will be able to do more missions aimed at ground troops that are not complying with the U.N. resolution to protect those seeking Gadhafi's ouster.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates and others said the U.S. military's role will lessen in coming days as other countries take on more missions and the need declines for large-scale offensive action like the barrage of cruise missiles fired over the weekend mainly by U.S. ships and submarines.
President Barack Obama has been traveling in Latin America throughout the Libya military campaign. On Tuesday, while en route to El Salvador, he had a conference call aboard Air Force One with his national security team, including Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, according to deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes.
Obama also called French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron. The three agreed that NATO "should play a key role" in commanding the Libya military operation, Rhodes said, but details had yet to be settled.
Locklear said the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar is expected to start flying air patrols over Libya by this weekend, becoming the first member of the Arab League to participate directly in the military mission. The U.S. wants to hand off control of the overall effort to another entity, but that prospect remained unsettled.
Members of Congress, including a number from Obama's own party, were increasingly questioning the wisdom of U.S. involvement.
"We began a military action at the same time that we don't have a clear diplomatic policy, or a clear foreign policy when it comes to what's going on in Libya," said Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., adding that the Obama administration lacks a clear understanding of rebel forces trying to oust Gadhafi, who has ruled for 42 years.
"Do we know what their intentions would be? Would they be able to govern if they were to succeed? And the answer is we don't really know," Webb said.
Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, said he would offer an amendment to the next budget resolution that would prohibit taxpayer dollars from being used to fund U.S. military operations in Libya.
Officials from the Pentagon, the State and Treasury departments and intelligence operations held a closed briefing for congressional staff on Libya. Among those discussing the operation were Gene Cretz, the U.S. ambassador to Libya; David Cohen, Obama's nominee as undersecretary for terrorism financing; and officials from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a participant said.
The congressional source spoke on condition of anonymity because the session was classified.
They focused on the U.S. military assets in the region and provided some specifics. Cohen discussed the U.S. ability to freeze Libyan assets.
The officials refused to address the cost of the operation, the congressional source said.
The Treasury Department broadened sanctions on Libyan individuals and business entities Tuesday.
In his overview of the military operation to date, Locklear said the no-fly zone authorized last week by the U.N. Security Council is being implemented effectively.
"It's my judgment, however, that despite our successes to date, that Gadhafi and his forces are not yet in compliance with the United Nations Security Council resolution, due to the continued aggressive actions his forces are taking against the civilian population of Libya," Locklear said.
Gadhafi's forces have yet to stop threatening or attacking civilians in major cities such as Misrata, Locklear said. The Libyan air defenses and offensive air forces have been effectively neutralized by U.S. and coalition attacks, he said, but Libyan ground forces are still engaged in threatening acts.
Locklear said intelligence showed that Gadhafi's forces were attacking civilians in Misrata, Libya's third-largest city. In a joint statement to Gadhafi late Friday, the United States, Britain and France called on him to end his troops' advance toward Benghazi and pull them out of the cities of Misrata, Ajdabiya and Zawiya.
Asked how the coalition could protect civilians in cities like Misrata using air power alone, Locklear said the coalition is "considering all options" but didn't elaborate.
The Marine Corps, meanwhile, offered fresh details of its role in the rescue of an Air Force F-15E pilot who ejected over eastern Libya on Monday. The plane's weapons system officer, who also ejected and made it safely back to U.S. control, was recovered in a separate operation not involving the Marines.
Unconfirmed reports from Libya said a number of civilians were wounded, apparently during the pilot rescue, but the circumstances were murky.
A senior Marine Corps officer at the Pentagon, who discussed the pilot rescue operation on condition of anonymity because the F-15E's crash is still under investigation, said that during the course of the rescue two 500-pound bombs were dropped by Marine AV-8B Harrier jets.
The officer said the bombs were requested by the downed pilot, who reported concern that possibly hostile forces were approaching. The officer said it was unclear what the two bombs hit.
The pilot was picked up by an MV-22 Osprey aircraft that flew — along with a second Osprey, two CH-53E helicopters, two Harriers and one refueling aircraft — from aboard the USS Kearsarge. The officer said the rescue took 90 minutes, from the time the Marine aircraft launched from the Kearsarge shortly before midnight, local time, to their return to the ship. A security force of about 35 Marines that flew aboard the two CH-53Es did not get on the ground during the rescue, the officer said.
Locklear provided no details of the rescue but said the two-man crew of an F-15E ejected after the craft suffered mechanical problems during a strike mission against a Libyan missile site.
Associated Press writers Pauline Jelinek and Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report.